Upon arriving at the White House in late January, British Prime Minister Theresa May became the first foreign leader to meet with the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump. Continuing the tradition, she invoked the long-standing phrase “special relationship” between the two nations, which was coined by Winston Churchill in his 1964 “Sinews of Peace” speech at Westminster College in Missouri.
The iconic statue of Benjamin Franklin, the first diplomat and the first postmaster general in the United States, greets visitors to the Old Post Office building located in the midway between the White House and the Capitol Hill on Pennsylvania Avenue. The landmark building is now the luminous Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.
While this relationship has existed for centuries with the arrival of the Pilgrims and colonists, the warmth and kinship understood in contemporary context belies the tension—indeed hostilities—when viewed in the broader and more comprehensive historiography. In his memoir, Present at the Creation (1969), President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote that the relationship was not “affectionate” as the United States had fought against the Red Coats in the Revolutionary War as well as the War of 1812. Certainly, Acheson recalled that “we had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally.” In this, it is worth bringing to the foreground another one of America’s special relationships; that with China.
Apart from various niches of the political and academic intelligentsia, America’s relationship with China is one that continues to be largely and mutually beneficial but misunderstood, and one that is generally swept under the carpet in favor of America’s Euro-centric view of the world. Yet, it has not only raised the quality of life for millions, but has also rescued millions from the ravages of abject poverty.
This mutually-beneficial relationship constitutes the most consequential for both countries today, and for the most part, it has been harmonious since the seventeenth century. For this reason, it is worth taking a Janus-like view of this history so that a better understanding of this bond can be achieved, and a more peaceful and mutually-beneficial future may be restored in the evolving Sino-American relationship.
The China Trade
While Chinoiserie did exist in America in the seventeenth century, direct trade with China was limited by the English Parliament’s Navigation Act of 1651. (The Act required all trade between England and the colonies must be transported in colonial vessels. The far-reaching implications resulted in the Anglo-Dutch War in 1652). It was not until after the 1783 Treaty of Paris that the patriot war financier Robert Morris decided to establish trade between the new Republic of the United States and China “to encourage others in the adventurous pursuit of commerce.” In 1784, celebrating George Washington’s birthday on February 22, Morris and his partners dispatched the privateer Empress of China from New York Harbor to Canton (Guangzhou). At the time, the voyage was a tectonic shift for the Republic as it severed its commercial obeisance to the United Kingdom and embarked on a new relationship with the Middle Kingdom.
The founding generation idolized china’s legendary existence, literary culture, and its commercial intercourse through the ancient Silk Road. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat who negotiated the taxation dispute on tea in London wrote, “the colonies would gladly have borne the little tax on tea and other matters had it not been that England took away from the colonies their money, which created unemployment and dissatisfaction.” This, he argued, “was the prime reason for the Revolutionary War” as well as the Boston Tea Party and many other similar confrontations from York, Maine to Charleston, South Carolina.
Free from the yoke of the mercantilist policies of the United Kingdom, America’s trade with China expanded greatly. American colonial life was permeated with Chinese teas, silks, porcelains, wallpapers, Chinese Chippendale furniture, and other products. Moreover, post-colonial America attempted to emulate Chinese affluence while developing a tea-drinking socio-economic culture in the middle class from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Annapolis to Charleston.
Americans who deride all things made in China today could be forgiven for thinking that this is a uniquely Chinese invention. In fact, this was the brainchild of two American brothers who sought to make an entry into the American middle class market. Nathaniel and Frederick Carne had specialized in importing luxury goods from France intended for wealthy Americans (think Chanel or Hermès). However, the emergence of a middle class in the 1830s led the brothers to recognize a possible third tranche of consumers who, while not wealthy, still had some disposable income (think Michael Kors or Coach). In contemporary argot: affordable luxury. They sent some of their luxury goods from France off to Chinese craftsmen where the goods could be made at a much lower cost. Once products were satisfactorily replicated, they were imported to America in quantities, and the knockoff was born. Nonetheless, acquiring and collecting all things Chinese was a genuine testament to the admiration colonial America had for China or anything Chinese.
Implanting a New Civilization
Of all the products being imported into America, none is likely to have been as consequential as tea. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Americans consumed more than one billion cups of tea annually—close to two cups per person each day. Franklin, a habitual tea drinker, estimated at the second half of the century that “a million of Americans drink tea twice a day” either in the morning at home, socially in the afternoon, or in the evening after dinner.
George Washington, like Franklin, also had a great affection for Chinese tea. As a farmer and surveyor in his pastime, Washington kept detailed records of flowers from “Chinese seeds” that were given to him at his Mount Vernon estate. He also had an affinity for Chinese porcelain where, to overcome commercial dependence on British imports, Dr. Benjamin Rush attempted to set up “a china manufactory” for “the service of America” in Philadelphia.
Thomas Jefferson also studied Chinese gardening and architectural design for use at his Monticello home. He not only admired gardening “where objects are intended only to adorn” but also the railings below the dome of his Monticello residence and surrounding walkways were a blend of Roman and Chinese design. For worldly Jefferson, it was natural for him to combine the best of both occidental and oriental cultures to help create a new American civilization.
Despite all the trade in consumer goods, Chinese influence extended well beyond products. The Middle Kingdom also exported its highly-developed culture. Benjamin Franklin acted like a Confucian disciple, promoting Chinese moral philosophy in his own weekly newspaper, Pennsylvania Gazette. The colonial sage explained to readers how Confucian principles could provide the framework for a “happy and flourishing empire” in America. The first American sinologist also commented that the “Chinese are regarded as an ancient and highly civilized nation” from which Americans might learn to form their own republican civilization. By linking Confucius to Jesus in The Age of Reason (1794), Thomas Paine, another prolific Founding Father, also maintained that the Chinese were “a people of mild manners and of good morals.”
Fascinated by the transformative power of ancient philosophy, Franklin further demonstrated the relevance of—and his admiration for—China through his American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Its secretary Charles Thomson (later secretary of the Continental Congress) compared the two countries, saying Philadelphia “lies in the 40th degree of north latitude of very same as Pekin [Beijing] in China,” and that the comparable “soil and climate” would help the city to “thrive in a degree equal to our warmest expectations.” The secretary went on to say, “This country may be improved beyond” what “might have been expected” if we could be “so fortunate as to introduce the industry of the Chinese, their arts of living and improvements in husbandry, as well as their native plants, America might in time become as populous as China, which is allow to contain more inhabitants than any other country, of the same extent, in the world.” At that time, the Chinese population was approximately 300 million while the American colonies had only slightly over two million.
Franklin, the founder of the Philadelphia Society, concluded that China was a role model and hoped that “America would in time come to possess much likeness in the wealth of its industries to China.”
Trade Binds People
Like the monks and merchants in the legendary Silk Road of ancient China, the Pilgrims and colonists in colonial America presented a parallel evolution in search of spiritual happiness and material wealth. Its founding motto of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” reflected the theoretical framework corresponding to the trinity of economics, politics, and spirituality in the new Republic’s ethos. By combining the three, Jefferson and other enlightened Founding Fathers established the Republic in 1776. Their underlying force for unity and prosperity was trade and commerce.
Inspired by the experience of the Pilgrims and colonists, the United States Constitution was designed to unite the diverse nation with its “Commerce Clause” enshrined in the sacred document. The clause gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”
Establishing a trade relationship with China was an institutional vision of the commercial Republic as the founding generation sought to free themselves from the yoke of British. Nevertheless, the Virginia charter of the British colonists—which sought “a shortcut to China” by giving instructions to navigate through the James River “toward the North-West” Pacific Territory—remained an intriguing text, especially with its strategic objective to trade with China.
As the third president, Jefferson dispatched the Lewis and Clark Expedition to search for the navigational waterway to China. The instructions for the Expedition clearly stated that finding a direct channel to the Pacific coast—through the newly acquired areas under the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest Territory—was for “the purpose of commerce.”
Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Like the ups-and-downs of “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States, the evolving Sino-American commercial relationship is also thriving for the greater benefit of both—with or without President Trump’s “trade war” rhetoric and China-bashing.
The White House’s Office of the Trade Representative estimated that China was America’s largest goods trading partner, and was America’s third largest goods export market in 2015. In the same year, Iowa alone exported $1.4 billion worth of agricultural products to China. In recent years, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have invested in Kansas, Ohio, Virginia, and other states.
There are also more than 450 Confucius Institutes on university campuses and in K-12 schools across America—more than four in each state. Many American educational institutions are financially benefiting from Chinese students and cultural exchange programs—with positive impact on other sectors in their local economies.
Governors and Congressional leaders have recognized the win-win nature for their states and districts that is generally better than the proposed tariff by President Trump on Chinese imports with potentially negative consequences and likely retaliations by Beijing leadership. These sentiments clearly reflect a convergence between Governors and Congressional leaders as well as President Xi Jinping’s pronouncements at the World Economic Forum in Davos that there are “no winners” when nations engage in “trade wars.”
As President Trump embarks on his “America First” policy, he has begun by withdrawing from former President Barack Obama’s 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and intends to opt for a bilateral approach to China as well as other countries. Excoriating China’s policies provide a convenient narrative for electoral politics. However, it would be hard to believe that President Trump and his inner circle are not cognizant of the integral connection between China and its influence on the formation of the commercial Republic and the Mutually Assured Prosperity” (MAP) that followed (as opposed to the famous “Mutually Assured Destruction” or MAD articulated by the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Cold War era).
In all this, the real irony is that while he criticizes China and its policies, Trump has been engaged in business activities with two major SOEs of Beijing. His loans are from the Bank of China while the Trump Tower houses the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—the largest office tenant whom Trump considers “a great” occupant.
Past is Prologue
Representing Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Anthony Scaramucci, American financier and then nominee for the White House Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs, described the United States as the apostle of “free trade.” Attending President Xi Jinping’s maiden speech at Davos, Scaramucci learned more about China’s commercial vision and global outreach strategy as the United States has apparently retreated from international engagement with the “America First” plan. He then said that President Trump wanted an “excellent relationship with the Chinese” that would eventually “create symmetry” within a broader framework of other contested issues of Taiwan, North Korea, the South China Sea, among others.
Attempting to predict President Trump and his policy positions will be difficult. At this point, however, we know that the Trump White House has essentially assembled a team of rivals in his inner circle of wealthy advisors and cabinet members—including the designated China-friendly ambassador to Beijing, Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, and a “kitchen cabinet” of corporate and financial executives, headed by American billionaire-investor Stephen Schwarzman who has extensive network with SOEs and the Communist Party of China.
For now, one can only hope that the changing dynamics of the hostile campaign “headlines” will ultimately give way to the historically forgotten “trendlines,” and point to a mutually-beneficial “symmetrical” relationship between China and the United States.